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This Is Why We All Need to Stand Behind Cheryl Zondi and Every Survivor

‘I am not trying to be emotional here, this is what happened to me’.

Social media users have been rallying behind Cheryl Zondi, who has testified that Nigerian pastor Timothy Omotoso abused her sexually for a period of more than two years. Omotoso, who is a pastor at the Dominion International Church, has been accused of human trafficking, sexual assault, and the rape and violation of young female congregants at the church.

He and his two alleged accomplices Lusanda Sulani and Zukiswa Sitho are currently facing trial. Sulani and Sitho are accused of recruiting girls from all over the country for the purpose of sexual exploitation.

Zondi’s cross-examination brought to light the echoes of #MeToo and #IBelieveHer. This is about a broken system that all too often frames victims of sexual assault as liars and opportunists. Globally, survivors have been using these hashtags to rally behind a movement that demands change in a world that instils little to no confidence among women that they will secure justice should they report rape.

During cross-examination, Zondi was asked by Omotoso’s lawyer Peter Daubermann to recall the inches of her accused’s genitalia, and why she didn’t scream. The defence questioning has been called ‘brutally inhumane’ and caused public outrage.

‘I was scared but I gathered the guts to tell him how I felt,’ said Zondi. ‘I am not trying to be emotional here, this is what happened to me.’ The consistent micro-aggressions used by Omotoso’s lawyer reveal a systemic problem with how issues of sexual assault are often treated.

‘She doesn’t look like a rape victim.’

‘She asked for it.’

‘Why is she only coming out now?’

These are just some of the comments that do the rounds when one is referring to a rape survivor who is brave enough to step out and say what happened to them despite the many vile attacks they know they are yet to field off – both online and IRL. The line of questioning – as seen in Cheryl Zondi’s testimony – is gaslighting in its vilest form, and perpetuates a culture of fear and shame for survivors, discouraging them from coming forward.

This is why we need to #BelieveHer

Rape culture has produced particular complicity among many in our society – so much so that people turn a blind eye to the injustices in their church, or even in their own home. Violent crime in South Africa is horrific, and according to the country’s crime stats, rape and abuse are grossly under-reported.

Zondi has been lauded by many for showing resilience and courage during this time, and many South Africans have rallied on Twitter to commend her brevity throughout this ordeal, fully supporting her and saying they believe her. This is an important moment for many as Zondi stands firm in her testimony despite the gruesome line of questioning.

Zondi has had to recount the series of events that occurred through chronological knit-picking. This means revisiting the trauma of her experiences, all while trying to convince a court that she is a survivor.

A pulse check on the state of our court justice system

The cost of rape and the after-effects thereof on survivors is traumatic enough without the fact that the justice system continues to fail South African womxn.

Womxn often don’t have a place of protection to flee to if they are being abused by an intimate partner, so opening a rape case or a case of assault against their partner often means placing themselves in even greater danger. This is why there are many reports of women who have opened case files with police, then gone back a few days – or a week – later to cancel the case file.

Many cases, should they end up in the courts, still do not see a conviction of the perpetrator but rather the further infliction of pain on the survivor as a result of the harsh realities of the justice system:

  1. Some cases get thrown out of court because there is insufficient evidence
  2. The rapist gets a lesser sentence time

These realities can leave the victim worse off than when the trial began – because after having to relive that painful occurrence, they also leave without compensation or justice.

The South African reality of rape

Pumla Dineo Gqola, in her book Rape: A South African Nightmare, writes about the manufactured fear within private and public spaces:

The manufacture of female fear works to silence women by reminding us of our rapability, and therefore blackmails us to keep ourselves in check. It also sometimes works to remind some men and trans-people that they are like women, and therefore also rapable. It is a public fear that is repeatedly manufactured through various means in many private and public settings.

The manufacture of female fear requires several aspects to work: the safety of the aggressor, the vulnerability of the target, the successful communication by the aggressor that he has power to wound, rape and/or kill the target with no consequences to himself. Women are socialised to look away from the female fear factory – to pretend it is not happening and to flee when ignoring it becomes impossible. Patriarchy trains us all to be receptive to the conditions that produce – and reproduce – female fear, especially when it is not our own bodies on the assembly line.

Zondi is a rare and courageous adversary to the culture of fear Gqola cites. The University of Johannesburg student waived her right to remain anonymous during the trial because she said she wanted the world to know what type of pastor Omotoso is. South Africans and the government need to come together and address a long-overdue conversation about consent, misogyny, and how the justice system works for victims of sexual crime. It cannot be that we continue to live each day as though this isn’t paramount to a state of emergency when so many sisters, mothers, children, family members and friends are dying. It cannot be – not on our watch.

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